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The ‘Querdenker’: A Bulwark Against Extremism

by Jalees Rehman

by Jalees Rehman

The annual Nobel Laureate Meeting in the German city of Lindau located at the beautiful Lake Constance is an inspiration hub. Each year, Nobel laureates in the sciences meet up with bright young scientists who are about to embark on their research careers to discuss a broad array of scientific topics and the nature of scientific discovery. These young researchers learn about the Higgs boson, the role of RNA molecules in the evolution of cells, the development of environment-friendly chemical synthesis and many other scientific topics. But what is most inspiring for them is that they get to meet Querdenker.

The German word Querdenker consists of “quer” (which can be translated as “cross”, “transverse”, “oblique” or “diagonal”, some sources suggest that the English word “queer” is derived from it) and Denker (thinker). Querdenker could thus be translated as diagonal thinkers or intellectual mavericks, basically thinkers who travel off the beaten path. The scientific discoveries presented by the Nobel laureates hail from very different fields, which is why certain technical aspects can be difficult to grasp. But one common theme emerges in the Lindau lectures and the discussions. Many, if not most, of the Nobel laureates are Querdenker. They received the Nobel Prize because they challenged existing scientific concepts or revolutionized science by introducing innovative technologies which allowed scientists to pursue questions that had previously resided beyond their reach. The impact of their work had a broad impact, often transcending the boundaries of conventional scholarly disciplines.

After leaving the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, one feels the inexorable desire to challenge some existing scientific dogma or concept. This is easier said than done because we are so often entrenched in conventional scientific views and paradigms. AndQuerdenker or not, pursuing high-risk, unconventional paths will often lead to failure. Such is the nature of science. But the joy of rebelling against existing scientific concepts, the hope that there is a remote chance of revolutionizing one’s field and the narratives of the Nobel laureates can sustain and motivate scientists despite the poor odds. Science is at its best when it challenges authority. Science is at its worst when it submits to authority. This is true for authority within science such as pre-eminent scientific ideas but also for authority outside of science. One of the darkest chapters in the history of German science took place when scientists submitted to the Nazi ideology of the Third Reich.

At the 65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, a non-scientist Querdenker gave a provocative talk with the title “When Survival is Learning Enough”: Wole Soyinka, who received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. Soyinka is a literary Querdenker, whose plays and novels weave a multicultural quilt of ideas, integrating Yoruba and European culture and styles of narration, defying traditional literary categories. The thrust of his talk was the devastating attack on education perpetrated by Islamist extremists, especially by the group known as Boko Haram in his homeland Nigeria.

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